How to find meaning in the meaningless
I was nine years old when my life was folded up into a few suitcases and bags, and my family and I flew across the Atlantic, away from friends I had known for as long as I’d had memories, from a land of trees and mountains, to a country called England and a grey town of strangers. Over the next few years, with the crises of puberty setting a score, my mum left my dad, we fought to fit in, xenophobic bullies told me to “go back to Canadia”, stepdads came and went like hurricanes, we went without and did what we could, struggling for money, my dad remaining the only stable constant.
Pieces of what I’d known as childhood innocence were scattered, lost, others clung to as if they could explain this displacement. We had been told that God wanted us here, that all would be well because He had willed it. I grew up a little and learned something of family politics: It was no coincidence that “God” wanted us to immigrate to the country (and specific town) in which my mother’s relatives lived. I grew up some more and stopped believing in God. There was no meaning behind our move and its hardships after all, or there were only a few reasons and none of them good, which still felt like meaninglessness.
Fifteen years on, that uprooted sapling began putting down new roots. I met the woman who, eight years later, is now my fiancée. And over the course of our relationship, there have been times when it was difficult not to appropriate my ancient history to redirect its sequence of events involving leaving Canada and losing friends and the break up of our family, so that its flow no longer led to meaninglessness but instead led to my meeting her.
What had been a mess of confusion, pubescent hormones, and heartbreak was viewed differently to become fragments of the path towards the most meaningful relationship in my life. No matter how self-conscious and aware that we are not supposed to believe in meta-narratives anymore, we can’t help but see things that happen to us as chapters in the stories of our lives.
This narrative alchemy that turns the rough stone of life events into the gold of life stories is what Nietzsche argued made Greek tragedy an invaluable art-form. He claimed that spectators to staged tragedies looked into the abyss of meaningless existence and affirmed it, thereby affirming their own lives. It is in reframing the tragic as an aesthetic performance that we can overcome its meaninglessness.
Modernism and postmodernism, in rejecting the aesthetic dimension, have spent the last hundred years sacrificing artifice to “better” portray reality, and have ended up simply jettisoning art itself from its artwork. Stringent realism drains the mythic and metaphoric qualities from stories, which means we see these tragedies too soberly. Too much rationality in art negates its artistic value. Metaphor is where meaning can be found.
A happily sad ending
So far, so academic – how does this shape out in a real-world example? Let’s take Darren Aronofsky’s 2006 film The Fountain. When the movie came out, I was nineteen and stuck in that adolescent phase of film criticism that spends all of its energy on “working out” movies as if they are mathematical puzzles to be solved. I watched The Fountain several times trying to grasp the presumed objective foundation to its genre-bending story: So, I figured, Hugh Jackman’s Tommy is a neuroscientist working on a cure for brain tumours because his wife (Rachel Weisz as Izzi) is dying of one. Meanwhile, she is writing a novel about a Spanish conquistador called Tomás (played by Jackman) searching for the Tree of Life so that he and Queen Isabella (played by Weisz) can live forever. Except this isn’t a fiction, because neuroscientist Tommy has a compound from a tree in Guatemala that might cure death. But Izzi dies, so once he has perfected and imbibed the cure, he ends up living through the death of humanity. Now, the last man alive, he drifts through space in a transparent bubble towards a dying star...
Because of the complex patterning of the narrative, it took me a while to knit this summary together, and while it made a certain kind of sense, it was fractured by inconsistencies. It also left me little to return to the movie for, and so I didn’t watch it again for almost a decade. This is the failure of this limited way of watching films.
Revisiting The Fountain a few years ago, I noticed that there is a certain irony (although Aronofsky’s films are not known for their sense of the ironic) in the fact that in trying to coax her husband along to something like a “happy ending” Izzi writes a tragedy (her novel being about a man determined to earn eternal life with his lover and who ends up dying alone). The irony is doubled with Tommy’s sci-fi fantasy, emerging from pessimism and stubborn refusal to face reality, becoming a kind of divine comedy: He imagines a man so obsessed with living forever that he ends up as the last man alive, until the positive resolution in which he accepts death gladly and becomes whole.
I wondered if this was more than an incidental irony: Perhaps it was inevitable that Izzi’s story would be a tragedy, in order for Tommy to transfigure the nihilism of his pain into something to be embraced. Eventually, we watch Tommy reading and attempting to rewrite the ending to Izzi’s novel. In the first draft, the conquistador is killed by the guardian of the Tree of Life, who shoves a dagger into the coloniser’s gut. I have always taken this moment – cut off abruptly as it is – to be the point at which Izzi left off writing, having died before she could complete the novel. She had spent her final days begging her Tommy to “finish it”, assuring him, “You can. You will.”
Eventually, Tommy takes up the pen, and what he writes is his own epiphanic revelation: He does not want to make the conquistador’s mistakes, which are the mistakes he has been making so far, in different forms. This is another of the features of tragedy that Nietzsche saw as indispensable to understanding life – art makes participants of its viewers, demanding that we interact emotionally and critically rather than as passive observers. No lesson is so well learned as the one that is not only cerebral but is experienced.
Tommy’s conquistador overcomes the guardian and approaches the Tree of Life with awe, before lunging at it with his dagger to greedily procure its life-giving ambrosia. As he gorges himself, he is healed of old wounds and tastes a hint of the promised immortality. But he soon falls over in agony as blooms of flowers erupt out of him, feeding on his now deceased body to sustain their growth. Life necessitates death, this story reveals, and the closest we can come to immortality is in the continuation of life dependent on the efforts we make while living.
Spaceman Tommy witnesses this narrative as he writes it, and he seems to learn a lesson in negative – this is the kind of story that shows us how not to live. It is being confronted with the full truth of his condition, presented in the aesthetic spectacle of tragedy, that leads him to finally embrace his mortality and see that there is a certain wonder to the life cycle. “Death,” the movie tells us, “is the road to awe.”
Chaos and Order
As I was growing up and attempting to categorise the world into something that made sense, the way early Adam named the animals to bring further order to the creation he found himself flung into, my dad would say that he couldn’t “do” partisan politics because he could understand both sides. Of course, in the day-to-day of life, he did take sides on many issues including party politics, because we humans cannot live with real ambiguity. We can remain open and can learn from other views and can change our minds – which is what my father really meant, I think, when he spoke of seeing both sides – but in the meantime, we are forced to take at least tentative positions on this side or that.
Nietzsche was deeply interested in what he called the Dionysian and the Apollonian, which I call Chaos and Order, the two forces that maintain reality. We are formed by the primal forces of Dionysian chaos, but we come into our humanity by utilising Apollonian order to understand and – however fleetingly or imperfectly – control ourselves and the world around. The constant shifting of the balance between these two opposing forces is seen throughout history and in each of our lives: We succumb to passions that rule us, or we close ourselves off to emotion; we fall prey to ideologies that thicken the veil between ourselves and truth, or we impersonate robots in an effort to calculate and rationalise our way out of fantasies; our freedom becomes a hedonism from which we cannot escape, or our desire for control leads to tyrannical order, supressing chaos under the despot’s boot.
Nietzsche was convinced, as am I, that it is in great art where Chaos achieves harmony with Order. It is in literature, plays, music, operas, cinema, and all great works that these two forces interact productively to reveal what neither alone can show us, what each in its extremity hides from our daily experience.
In The Fountain, Neuroscientist Tommy is well acquainted with Order, facing full-on the objective reality of brain tumours, hypotheses, and testing for scientific cures, obsessively searching while supressing the underlying passion that motivates his quest. In the act of taking up Izzi’s pen to engage in the art of storytelling, he might have tipped to the other extreme (given that he begins writing in the heightened state of sudden mourning) to allow Chaotic emotion to rule him; he might have written the ending he wanted, in which he achieved immortality and lived forever with his love, and in doing so lose himself to fantasy. This is the dark side of escapism, which creates a new kind of cage.
But Tommy is able to face his emotional Chaos while setting it against his natural tendency towards Order, which suggests a narrative that makes real sense. The ending he writes is the offspring of the union between what he wants to be true and what he knows to be true. This is how art reveals to us that which neither pure reason nor primal instinct alone can access.
Earlier this year, I read a dazzling book by Jérôme Ferrari called The Principle. This short novel might be the best example of the artistic balance between Chaos and Order that I can think of from contemporary literature. It is intellectually demanding and technically complex while boiling with the full range of human passion. The novel’s opening, made up of electric sentences that pulsate with life like an exposed nerve, reveal something of the in-between nature of our condition. The narrator is addressing Werner Heisenberg, the 20th century physicist, who is “granted the opportunity to look over God’s shoulder”. And then we read this:
“There was no miracle, of course, or even, to be honest, anything remotely resembling God’s shoulder, but to give an account of what happened that night, our only choice, as you know better than anyone, is between metaphor and silence.”
This is the foundational, ineradicable truth of great stories and great art – that “anyone who refuses to be resigned to silence can only express himself in metaphors”. At a certain point, both extremes of the Dionysian and the Apollonian run out of road; escapism and mere entertainment have limited potential, and (as we are discovering with increasing urgency as we forge our way through the 21st century) the “pure reason” of post-myth, anti-fantasy Order fails to speak of and speak to our deepest humanity.
The facts of the matter
Tommy the spaceman, the rationalist-in-extremis, floats through meaningless space in a self-constructed bubble that cuts him off from reality. Tomás the conquistador rampages across the word in thrall to primal emotion, destroying all in his way and consumed by the cause. Tommy’s ultimate enlightenment comes as audience to a grand narrative, a work of literature presented to us as a piece of cinema. He makes sense of his situation – as we make sense of the movie’s themes – by having it dramatised for him. The story makes sense of what had previously been meaningless.
I only came to read all of this out of The Fountain because I finally stopped puzzling over the objective existence of the spaceman and the conquistador, realising that it did not matter if the three Tommy characters were literally reincarnations of one person or actually one man who had never died. I gave up on wondering what the “facts” of the story really were. All of those issues are irrelevant.
I also don’t believe that there was any meta-path for my life that meant I was meant to meet my fiancée; I don’t believe in preordained teleology for my life, or fate, or divine providence, and I don’t need to. The story I sometimes tell myself – about how leaving a homeland and losing so much led to what I now have – is retrospective. It describes what happened in a way that imbues meaning without necessitating belief that the meaning is inherent. All such stories we tell about our lives are like this – they are metaphors. And it is in metaphor that we find meaning.
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• The Fountain, dir. Darren Aronofsky (2006)
• The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche (1872)
• The Principle, Jérôme Ferrari (2015)